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Back in the 1990s, I read a little sidebar in Leadership Journal written by Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.  I recounted this story often over the ensuing years.

Hybels wrote that he briefly visited the church campus for a rehearsal one week night.  The next morning, he received a note in his box from a church groundskeeper.  The note said, “Bill, when you visited last night, you parked in an area that’s off limits to everyone.  Just wanted you to know.”

Instead of lashing out at him, Hybels commended his corrector and told his Leadership audience, “I need to be an example, not an exception.”

And for decades, Pastor Bill from Willow has been an example of Christian leadership … until the recent revelations that may indicate inappropriate conduct on his part toward at least seven women.

There’s much we don’t know about what happened between Hybels and the women who have gone public with their concerns.  Maybe more revelations will surface in the coming days.  And I must confess … it’s difficult to analyze this situation from a distance.  But many people I know have been talking about it … with strong reactions on all sides … and I’ve learned a lot by listening to their observations.

I have no inside or additional information … just my own perspective about this situation.

Willow Creek June 14-15, 2005 006(I’m adding a few photos I took from Willow in 2005 to break up this article.)

Let me pose and attempt to answer four questions about the Willow “train wreck”:

First, what do you think about the accounts of impropriety from various women?

At first, like many people, I didn’t want to believe the charges against Hybels.  We don’t have any video of Hybels’ individual encounters with these women, so they initially fall into a “he said, she said” category.  But when seven women share their stories, and patterns emerge from their narratives, the similarities are most likely true.

*The accounts told by various women go back as far as the mid-1980s through at least 2011, so Hybels can’t claim they all happened when he was younger (and didn’t know the boundaries) nor when he was older (and his judgment was worn down).  The accounts spread over nearly three decades seem to indicate a pattern of behavior.

*The accounts are too detailed and concrete to be dismissed as a conspiracy.  What dismays many of us is that the allegations don’t sound like the Hybels that thousands of us respected.  I have a friend whose wife was in Hybels’ youth group and she says he never would have acted like these women claim he did.  Did something change over the years?

*I can’t wrap my head around why Hybels liked to tell select women how attractive or sexy they were, but Willow’s leaders have had a track record of focusing on the outward appearance of their public leaders.

Twenty-five years ago this month, someone who used to attend Willow hired one of Hybels’ former top leaders to serve as a consultant for our new church.  One of the consultant’s recommendations was to keep those who weren’t “in shape” off the stage, especially if they were singing or acting in a drama.  When I unwisely tried to implement this “Willow value,” a good couple immediately left the church, and I alienated one of the elders as well as some others … and I’ve regretted it ever since.

Maureen Girkins, former publisher from Zondervan, says Hybels told her that “she’d be more successful if she tried to be sexier.”  A Christian leader might think that, but to say it aloud?

*Several women mentioned that Hybels told them how unhappy he was at home.  Many of us in ministry know that the pathway to an affair starts with both the pastor and another woman sharing their marital unhappiness with each other.  It’s dangerous territory.  Why did Hybels, of all people, take that risk?

I attended the first International Conference at Willow in June 1994.  Hybels met with a group of pastors one afternoon and told us that he was in counseling for some “junk” from his past and that he and his wife were in counseling as well.  He was very transparent about his problems even though he and Lynne had written their marriage book Fit to be Tied the previous year.

I think it’s safe to say that this ministry couple had ongoing struggles in their relationship, although that’s not uncommon.

*As Christianity Today noted, “Hybels pressured women into spending time alone with him.”  This sounds like more than mentoring.  He comes off as a man who needed a friend, someone who could understand him.  I’m not trying to minimize his actions … just trying to figure out what he was after.  Was he looking for a listening ear or a wifely upgrade?

*Was anyone else disturbed by several accounts of staffers telling various women that they were “Hybels’ type?”  When a Christian leader gets married, shouldn’t his wife be “his type” from that moment on?  If this detail is true, it sounds like something that would happen in middle school, not in one of the nation’s largest churches.

Hybels wrote books with the following titles, among many others: Christians in a Sex-Crazed Culture; Honest to God?; Descending Into Greatness; and Character: Who You Are When No One’s Looking.  Right now, those titles look a bit ironic.

Willow Creek June 14-15, 2005 007

Second, if these accounts sound plausible, why did Hybels vehemently deny them all?

I can only guess.

Bill Hybels is the most transparent and vulnerable pastor that I’ve ever heard.  At the large-group gathering of pastors at the 1994 Conference, someone asked Hybels how he could be so transparent.  His answer?  He said something like, “It takes too much energy to hide things.”  While I enjoyed the creativity of Willow’s services … their core value of “people matter to God” … and the excellence with which they did everything … I was most impressed with the leadership’s authenticity, which sprang from their senior pastor.

So if Hybels was guilty of any of the infractions presented by these women, I would have expected him to confess, “I did say that … I didn’t do that … I may have done that.”

But that’s not what he did.  Instead, he initially issued a blanket denial, both to his congregation (including an online video) and to the Chicago Tribune, where he said:

“I want to speak to all the people around the country that have been misled … for the past four years and tell them in my voice, in as strong a voice as you’ll allow me to tell it, that the charges against me are false. There still to this day is not evidence of misconduct on my part.”

Why the initial denials?

*Is is possible there is a “megachurch morality?”  Let me share what happened to me eight years ago.

Seven months after I left my last ministry, I was still pretty raw emotionally.  A friend set up a meeting between me and a megachurch pastor.  We spent an hour in his office together.

At one point, the pastor told me a story … which I have since forgotten … but he then told me, “If you share this story with anybody else, and it gets back to me, I will deny it.”

I didn’t forget that statement.

That’s not the kind of thing a pastor with integrity would say.  He was telling me, “If what I’ve just shared resurfaces, I will tell a lie.”  It just rolled off his tongue like it was no big deal.

Is it possible that some megachurch pastors have a “I will protect my reputation and that of my church” at all costs mentality … even if it means lying?  Is this how they stay in power?

I admit this question is based on one incident … but it makes me wonder.

One of my mentors … a man I respect as much as anyone … recently told me that the entitled and privileged in the evangelical world constitute “one sicko sick system.”  I lack his knowledge of what happens on the inside of a very large church, so I’m unsure what to think.

*Is it possible that Willow had a “buddy culture?”  Jodi Walle was John Ortberg’s executive assistant at Willow for seven years.  She writes in this piece on her website (www.jodiwalle.com), “There was probably a naïve ‘buddy’ culture that didn’t place enough emphasis on male vs female.  It shows that Bill was possibly more relaxed and felt too comfortable with women …”

Yes, some of the accusations might have occurred in the context of a “buddy” culture, and Walle wrote her piece before the April 21 revelations from Christianity Today.  But Zondervan publisher Maureen Girkins certainly wasn’t part of that culture.

But the women must have been equally relaxed with Hybels to run with him alone or to visit his hotel room when summoned.  Yes, he held a degree of power over some of them, but didn’t they think twice about such arrangements?  What was wrong with saying, “I’m not comfortable doing this or being here?”

*If Hybels had admitted publicly to any kind of wrongdoing, how would his confession(s) have been received?

Let’s go back to when Hybels’ accusers first went public.  If Hybels had said at that time, “Look, I didn’t use my best judgment in these situations, and I want to apologize to these women personally, and if necessary, in the presence of the elders.”

What would have happened?

I don’t know.  My hope is that upon hearing Hybels’ confession, each woman would have forgiven him completely, and that would have settled the matter.

But what if Hybels and/or the elders feared that if he admitted any wrongdoing … no matter how small … there would have been calls for his termination or resignation?

If Hybels had admitted some degree of culpability … and it somehow became public … he had no way of knowing what the aftermath of his admission might be.  What if someone refused to forgive him and sought revenge instead?

It’s easy to say, “Well, he shouldn’t think about the consequences.  He should just admit his sin and take his lumps like a man.”

But Hybels wasn’t the pastor of an average church, but the leader of one of America’s most influential churches … one that’s become a movement … with an association of churches … and one that trains thousands of leaders.

In a very real way, Hybels was Willow to tens of thousands of people … but if Hybels went down, Willow and all its ministries would be negatively affected … possibly for years.

None of us can say how those admissions would have been used.  Hybels had to have his eye on his succession plan and planned retirement, and knew that in the present cultural climate, even a private admission on his part about a sensitive issue could go public and put Willow and its Association in jeopardy.

I am not saying that Hybels chose to lie.  And I am not saying that he was even conscious that he had done anything wrong.  (It’s easy to rationalize a host of misbehaviors if you’ve been operating under a “buddy culture.”)

But he and the elders had to know that in this particular area … misconduct toward women … it doesn’t take much for people to coalesce against a common opponent … and for the target of their wrath to become toast.

We all watched the dissolution of Mars Hill Church several years ago.  A church of 14,000 people and its satellite campuses vanished into nothingness seemingly overnight.

Willow may be constructed on a more robust foundation, but in today’s climate … especially with the viciousness of social media … anything is possible.

To Hybels’ credit, he finally made the following statements to his church on the night of his resignation:

“… I realize now that in certain settings and circumstances in the past I communicated things that were perceived in ways I did not intend, at times making people feel uncomfortable.  I was blind to this dynamic for far too long.  For that I’m very sorry.”

He continued:

“… I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.  I was, at times, naive about the dynamics those situations created.  I’m sorry for the lack of wisdom on my part.  I commit to never putting myself in similar situations in the future.”

This is a good start.  As the elders listen to the stories of other women, and as Hybels goes through a time of reflection, let’s pray that this conflict can be eventually resolved.

Willow Creek June 14-15, 2005 017

Third, how should Christians view the organized effort to damage Hybels?

More than eight years ago, a small, vocal group inside the church I served wanted to force me out as pastor.  They didn’t have anything on me, so they went after my wife … who was on the staff … instead.  (These events are recounted in my book Church Coup.)

From the moment the accusations against my wife surfaced, I knew that I would end up leaving.

I brought in a church consultant who did some interviews and attended two congregational meetings.  As a former pastor, he knew instinctively what the opposition was trying to accomplish, and spelled it out in his report.  He contained the damage and helped me negotiate an exit package.

But most of my supporters didn’t think matters were all that serious.  Some were trying to figure out how I could stay while addressing the concerns of the opposition.

But my opponents weren’t in a negotiating mood.  They had organized a plan to push me OUT … and the signs were all there.

I don’t know how much opposition Hybels had from within Willow, or whether anybody currently on the staff or elders wanted his scalp.

But I know the signs, and I don’t believe the group effort involving John Ortberg was just after repent/prevent … trying to get Hybels to repent so they could prevent others from being hurt.

In my view, they wanted to damage his reputation as well.

I have a pastor friend who believes that it takes a megachurch pastor like John Ortberg to confront a megachurch pastor like Bill Hybels.  And because I don’t understand “megachurch morality,” my friend may be right.

My friend also believes that Ortberg had nothing to gain by becoming involved in this situation, although I surmised some possibilities in my article from March 28.

But I’m looking for a biblical precedent here, and having a hard time seeing it.  As apostles, Paul and John took on troublemakers inside churches by name, even though they weren’t present in those churches … but does Hybels fit that category?  And has Ortberg been given the authority of an apostle in today’s Christian community?

Something just doesn’t feel right to me about this.

Several thoughts:

*Division inside a congregation begins when churchgoers pool their grievances against a common opponent … usually the pastor.  I throw my two complaints into the mix … you toss in your four … and pretty soon, we have a list of twenty-four grievances against the pastor … and our twenty-four look twelve times worse than my original two.

Now the pastor is a bad guy who has to go because he committed twenty-four offenses!

In the process, I allow myself to be triangled … to take responsibility for your pain … rather than encouraging you to work things out between you and your offender.

It’s far, far better … and much more biblical … for God’s people to implement Matthew 18:15-17 before they do anything else:

#Go to the pastor privately and directly (Jesus doesn’t exclude Christian leaders from His words) and try and get him to repent.

#If he won’t listen, take one or two more with you and try again.

#If he still won’t listen, tell the entire congregation.  (At this point, the official church board would probably become involved, and try and speak with the pastor themselves.  If he wouldn’t repent, then they could call a meeting of the church.)

Were these steps followed by each of the initial four women?  I’m not saying they weren’t, but it bothers me in any church that people can latch onto a group that opposes a pastor before they’ve tried speaking with him themselves.  It’s all too easy for a person with one grievance to carry the grievances of others … and it expands the sense of injustice … although it does make people feel powerful.

In my case, no one ever implemented Matthew 18 and came to me directly.  The first time I heard any charges were in a public church meeting … but Jesus doesn’t begin by saying, “If your brother sins against you … tell it to the church.”

More than eight years later, I still feel horribly violated by those public charges … and by that power tactic.  So I can understand how angry Hybels felt when someone started calling pastors and Christian leaders and accusing him of impropriety.

But is it possible that either Hybels or the elders … or both … made it difficult for the women to come forward and share their stories?

*In the Christian community, a pastor’s attackers are rarely confronted or disciplined.  In my last ministry, even though their tactics were not loving or godly, my detractors were not corrected or warned by anyone official.  Humanly speaking, they got away with it.  In fact, some were later rewarded and given places of leadership.

Sadly, over the years, I’ve learned that the last place an accused pastor can find “justice” is inside a local church.

In Deuteronomy 19:15-21, if a witness in ancient Israel accused someone of a crime, and the accused was later exonerated, the false witness was to be given the same punishment as the person he/she accused.  But this rarely happens in the Christian community today.  Those who slander leaders are almost never dealt with.  A pastor who is publicly accused of wrongdoing is assumed to be guilty without any kind of a trial.  Thank God the report of Hybels having a ten-year affair was quickly rebutted by Willow’s elders or Hybels could have been forced out by a lie four years ago.

*Why did Hybels’ accusers need John Ortberg’s assistance to confront Hybels?

Both the secular and evangelical presses have melded the offended women and the Ortbergs (and the Mellados) together.

I’d like to separate them out for a moment.

I can understand how the initial four women felt wronged as they heard each other’s stories.  And I can understand how one or two of them might choose to represent their friends and approach Willow’s elders with their concerns.

But why bring in Hybels’ former colleague John Ortberg?  (I just noticed on Amazon that they co-wrote a book together.)  Or did he volunteer to help them?  And it seems all the more odd because neither Hybels nor the elders seemed to respond to Ortberg’s overtures very favorably … especially when he and his group issued their infamous five demands.  (Why did they think the elders would agree to them?  Or were they just posturing?)

The women may have been naive about how these things work, but Ortberg assuredly knew what would happen once the women’s claims against Hybels went public.  He knows how the game is played.

Jodi Walle, Ortberg’s executive assistant I mentioned earlier, wrote an open letter to him on her website.  She asked him:

“How is it that now you are the one to give women a voice?  We have a voice.  It’s our job to use it.  To be current and to go to someone if they have harmed us.  You have nothing to say about any of it.  If anything, you are part of the problem.”

But she could have added, “I know what you are doing, John.  You are pushing hard so that Bill resigns.”

There’s an untold story as to Ortberg’s motives that we may never know … and yes, I’ve read his explanation online.

But Jodi Walle’s open letter to Ortberg paints a different picture of him than some might imagine.  Yet so far, to my knowledge, nobody has addressed Walle’s revelations publicly.

Read it yourself at www.jodiwalle.com

I find the silence very telling.

Hybels alleges … and I have no reason to doubt him … that someone was calling pastors and Christian leaders about him over the past few years, but that kind of whispering campaign … and it was a campaign … was designed to ruin Hybels’ reputation.

And contacting the Chicago Tribune about the allegations was the coup de grace.  Who thought that was a good idea?

But guess what?  The tactic worked.  It usually does … and Ortberg, as an experienced pastor, had to know that.

Paul Simon once wrote and sang a song called, “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love.”

And contacting Christian leaders privately and going to a secular newspaper “sure don’t feel like love” either.

*There are two main ways of getting rid of a pastor when he has not done something clearly impeachable:

First, you gather together multiple charges.

In Hybels’ case, there has been one primary charge: his improper behavior toward women.  There haven’t been accusations (to my knowledge) of mishandling church funds, for example, but there have been various allegations of sexual impropriety.

Second, you gather together multiple accusers … like in the Bill Cosby case.  

And that’s what happened with Hybels as well.

But the better way … and the biblical way … is for each individual to deal with issues as they arise.

However … two women claimed they did confront Hybels about his behavior.  One was Julia Wilkins from the gym (mentioned in the latest Christianity Today article), and the other was Vonda Dyer (who wrote her own story online).  It took great courage for those women to go to Hybels … in his office … and confront him … but in neither case did the women report anything resembling an apology.

Having been a pastor for thirty-six years, I know how difficult it is for people inside a church to confront their pastor about wrongdoing.  I could probably count on two hands the number of people that came to me personally over the years, so they stand out in my mind … and I’m probably a gentler person than Hybels.

When he denied any wrongdoing, it’s hard for me to believe that Hybels couldn’t recall those confrontations … especially since both women could have escalated matters by approaching Willow’s elders instead.

Conflicts in churches could be avoided and resolved if people would just address matters as they occur … and that’s certainly what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:23-26, and what Paul taught in Ephesians 4:26-27.

The Bible doesn’t give us a specific statute of limitations on confronting those who may have harmed us, but to go back twenty years to complain about a comment the pastor made seems vengeful to me.

There are two surefire ways to destroy a relationship: make a long list of someone’s offenses and recite it back to them … and mention offenses they may have committed that go back many years.

This is the way the world works.  This isn’t supposed to be the way the church works.

I just wonder who is influencing whom.

Willow Creek Conference June 12-15, 2006 172

Finally, how should people handle their complaints against a pastor?

This is my own shorthand formula:

First, overlook citations.  Pastors are human.  They make mistakes.  They wear down.  They get silly sometimes.  They aren’t always at their best.  Not every “offense” is serious.

My wife leaves her shoes all over the house.  Sometimes I trip on them.  I’ve asked her for years to put them away, but her habits haven’t changed.

To get along, I’ve chosen to overlook the shoes.  It’s not that important.  And she’s chosen to overlook some poor habits of mine.

I’m not prepared to say how many of the accusations against Hybels fall into the citation category, but I can think of a few that caused me to say, “Oh, brother.  That’s just piling on.”

They should have been overlooked rather than tossed into the mix.

Second, confront misdemeanors.  When a pastor has hurt someone … and he may not be aware of that fact … the person offended needs to speak with him privately.  Isn’t that what Matthew 18:15 teaches?  The burden is on the one sinned against to initiate reconciliation.

Most offenses that a pastor commits are misdemeanors in nature.  The only way to restore matters is for the offended person to take the initiative and lovingly approach the offender.

I’ve had people confront me about things I’ve said or did that hurt them, and when I did wrong, I apologized and asked for their forgiveness.

But I’ve also had people confront me about things that I didn’t do or say, and I wouldn’t apologize just to make the matter go away.

Many years ago, on Easter Sunday, the church I was serving had just finished the first service.  The worship team met to evaluate that service and make adjustments for the second service.  Out of nowhere, a male vocalist (who had a handicap) accused me of saying something cruel about him.  To his credit, he confronted me right away, but I didn’t say what he thought he heard, nor would I ever have said it.

Yet he demanded that I apologize to him.  But should I have apologized to him if I didn’t say what he thought I did?

Pastors are accused of offenses all the time … a few to their face, most behind their back.  It’s why Paul wrote 1 Timothy 5:19-21.  My guess is that most of the offenses that a pastor is accused of fall into the misdemeanor category … but relatively few people will ever confront the pastor to make things right.

Instead, they sometimes elevate clear misdemeanors to personal felonies.

Third, investigate felonies.  Many years ago, a woman approached me with information about a member of our church staff.  To put it mildly, he was not the person he claimed to be.

I spent two days at home making phone calls and doing research to find out if her allegations were true … and they were.  Then I shared my written documentation with the church board and we created a plan to confront him with two of the allegations.

They were both serious enough to result in termination.

According to Deuteronomy 19:15-21, when a person was accused of a crime in Israel, the judges commissioned and carried out an investigation, then issued their findings.

Sometimes pastors are accused of serious matters, and the official church board has to investigate the charges.

There are three primary areas that should cause church leaders to investigate a pastor’s conduct: heresy, sexual immorality, and criminal behavior.

Sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual intercourse outside marriage all constitute felonies that usually result in the immediate dismissal of a pastor.  By this standard, no one has yet accused Hybels of any ministry felonies.

But … and this is the challenging part … they may feel like felonies to the women involved.  Otherwise, why go public with their accusations?

The elders at Willow launched an internal investigation and then hired an outside investigator to examine the initial charges against Hybels.  One might say that both investigations chose to overlook citations nor cite any felonies.

But it seems obvious now that Hybels committed at least some misdemeanors.  They shouldn’t have been overlooked.

But I believe the moment Hybels’ accusers went public, his ministry at Willow was finished.  That’s the era in which we now live.

_______________

Bill Hybels has a secure place in the history of the Christian church.  He has done enormous good for the kingdom of God, even though many people have questioned or disagreed with his methodologies.

I’d like to recount a well-known verse of Scripture … one that many of us learned as a child:

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Ephesians 4:32

I pray for Bill and Lynne Hybels and wish them well in the future.  And I pray that if Hybels sinned against any of the women who have come forward, that he would admit his wrongdoing and ask for their forgiveness.

And I also pray that the evangelical community, Willow Creek, and Hybels’ accusers can someday forgive him as well.

May this situation cause all of us to examine our own hearts and reexamine the way we deal with those who wrong us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Several days ago, a friend sent me a link to a story concerning Pastor Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.

Right now, it may be the biggest story in the Christian community.

For many years, Willow Creek was the largest church in the United States, and is now sixth-largest.

If you haven’t yet read the story, here’s a link to the Christianity Today website:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/march/bill-hybels-misconduct-willow-creek-john-nancy-ortberg.html

The story also hit the pages of the Chicago Tribune:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-willow-creek-pastor-20171220-story.html

In a nutshell, the story states that Hybels – one of the most influential Christian leaders of his generation – has been accused by several women of “a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct.”

To my knowledge, no one claims today that Hybels engaged in sexual intercourse with them.  Several years ago, one woman confided in a top Willow Creek leader that Hybels had a “prolonged consensual affair” with her lasting more than a decade, but she has since written a full retraction, confessing that she “wanted to tear [Bill] and Willow down and get it out of my system.”

But several other women have accused Hybels of “suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, and invitations to hotel rooms.”

Charges first surfaced in April 2014, and Hybels has undergone two separate investigations since that time: an initial investigation by the elders of his church, and a second investigation by Jeffrey Fowler, an outside, independent investigator.

Hybels is due to retire in six months, and has already named a successor as lead pastor and another person as teaching pastor.

I have read everything I could about this story, including the Christianity Today story above, the Chicago Tribune story, and the written and video statements from Pam Orr, the elder chair at Willow, and Hybels himself.  You can find them here:

https://www.willowcreek.org/en/willow-creek-response-to-local-media

I’ve also read comments from the above stories, as well as many comments on Facebook and Twitter.

For many years, I was an advocate of Willow Creek’s approach to church ministry:

*I attended four conferences at the church between 1990 and 2006.

*I pastored a seeker-driven church in Silicon Valley for many years.  During my tenure there, our church sent twenty-two leaders to Willow Creek for training.

*My last three churches were all members of the Willow Creek Association.

*Although I met Bill Hybels once, he would not remember me.

However … I’ve never been enamored with everything Willow does, and have sometimes found myself perplexed or even upset about some of their policies.

But Willow Creek has always been known for its authenticity and transparency, and it’s the single trait I most admire about the church.

I believe that both Hybels and Willow’s elders have handled this situation in as transparent a fashion as possible.  In both investigations, Hybels was asked to turn over his personal technology devices (which were forensically examined), his emails (many of which were automatically deleted from Willow’s server), personal financial records, personal church records, his calendar, and travel records.

How many pastors could survive such scrutiny?

Some pastors would have resigned before any investigation started so their life wouldn’t be exposed.  Still other pastors might have confessed their wrongdoing before an investigation demonstrated their guilt.

But Hybels endured two thorough investigations, and according to Willow’s elders, did not lead or influence either one.

And let me say … as someone who was once investigated for several days … each day feels like a month.

Jeffrey Fowler, the outside investigator, told the Chicago Tribune: “After looking at thousands of documents, after interviewing 29 people, and doing as much as I possibly could, I concluded that there was no basis for believing that Pastor Hybels had engaged in a pattern and practice of misconduct, and to the extent any specific incident had been raised with me, I concluded that his actions in those instances were not inappropriate.”

But this has not satisfied some of Willow’s former staff members.

The names that keep being mentioned are John and Nancy Ortberg and Jim and Leanne Mellado.  Assuming they are the two couples mentioned in the discussions about Hybels, I’ll just call them The Group.

But John Ortberg is the most prominent leader of the “opposition.”

John Ortberg was a teaching pastor at Willow for many years.  He is presently the lead pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I’ve heard Ortberg speak at a church he pastored in Diamond Bar, California nearly thirty years ago and again at Willow in 1994.  I also had lunch with Ortberg’s predecessor fifteen years ago, so I have some familiarity with his ministry.

When the woman mentioned above claimed that she had an affair with Hybels, the Willow Creek Association Board voted not to conduct an investigation.  Nancy Ortberg and several other Christian leaders resigned from the board in protest … which was their right.

But once they resigned … in my view … they forfeited their right to have any further input into the Hybels situation.

The Ortbergs were no longer Willow employees nor church members.  They may have kept some personal ties, but they officially severed ties with the church.  And as a founding staff member from Willow once taught me, “The way you leave is the way you’ll be remembered.”

When the elders decided to investigate Hybels internally, The Group evidently relinquished control of the situation.

But then Hybels was exonerated, not once, but twice.

But The Group did not agree with the process used … and presumably not the conclusions reached.

In fact, according to Bill Hybels:

“Unfortunately, it has become clear that when the woman retracted her story, the group of former staff members who brought the original allegation then began to reach out to women who are or who have been a part of Willow, asking if any of them have ever had an uncomfortable interaction with me. Without mentioning the woman’s full retraction, they told women that I had an inappropriate relationship that Willow’s Elders had covered up, and they invited the women to share any negative experiences of their own.”

They have now escalated their attacks against Willow’s elders and Hybels himself, to the point that Hybels is convinced they are colluding to destroy his reputation.  Hybels told the Chicago Tribune:

“This has been a calculated and continual attack on our elders and on me for four long years. It’s time that gets identified.  I want to speak to all the people around the country that have been misled … for the past four years and tell them in my voice, in as strong a voice as you’ll allow me to tell it, that the charges against me are false.  There still to this day is not evidence of misconduct on my part.”

Hybels then told his congregation: “The lies you read about in the Tribune article are the tools this group is using to try to keep me from ending my tenure here at Willow with my reputation intact.  Many of these alleged incidents purportedly took place more than [20] years ago. The fact that they have been dredged up now and assembled in a calculated way demonstrates the determination of this group to do as much damage as they possibly can.”

I’m trying to get my head around why a leader like John Ortberg … who was Hybels’ ministry colleague and friend … would do something like this.

The following questions are based purely on speculation:

*Did he and Bill fall out personally when they were both at Willow?  Hybels evidently is not an easy man to work for.

*Did Ortberg secretly hope that he would be named Hybels’ successor?

*Does he view himself as the leader of a rival movement to Willow Creek?

*Has he become a public supporter of the #MeToo Movement, especially inside Christian churches?

*Does he know something from his time at Willow about the way the board protects Hybels regardless of any mistakes he’s made?

*Does Ortberg believe he is the best person possible to represent some of Hybels’ accusers?

*Does he really want Hybels to be exposed so he can repent and be restored?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, and Ortberg may not know the answers, either.  He was recently quoted as saying, “This information came to us in a way that was unlooked for, unwanted, and it put us in a terrible situation.”

But a more likely possibility is that when Ortberg took his initial public stand against the elders and Hybels himself, he has tried ever since to show that he’s right and the leaders at Willow are wrong.

In other words, this conflict has degraded into winners and losers.

And if Hybels is declared innocent of all charges, that makes The Group look foolish, if not bad … causing some people to wonder if they’re guilty of fostering division and slander.

At this point, I’d like to share my own story briefly.

Like Hybels, I am now nearing the age of retirement.  I dreamed of retiring while still a pastor.

But in December 2009, I resigned from my pastoral tenure of 10 1/2 years at a Bay Area church because I was lied right out of the church.

I wrote a book called Church Coup if you’re interested in my story.  And I spent a lot of time in the book detailing the steps that lead a pastor to resign under duress.

My predecessor was involved in the coup.  After going into retirement for nine years, he wanted to return to the church … but first had to push me out.

He worked with the board, the associate pastor, and others to get rid of me … and their plot worked.

After I left, a nine-person team investigated the charges against me and concluded that there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

Another pastor succeeded me.  I have never spoken with him nor met him.

But I could never, ever do anything to undermine that pastor.

Why not?

*When I left the church, I left it for good.  I have never returned for any kind of service or event … and I have no plans to do so.

*The church chose its own board members without my input.  They govern the church.  I have no say in what goes on there, and it would be unethical if I did.

*If the church mistreated someone … and many of my friends eventually left in tears or in anger … I might be able to advise them on what to do, but I would never think to advise the board … nor would they want my input.

Let me state this clearly:

It is unethical for a pastor or staff member to interfere with the governance of any church they once served.

God did not appoint John Ortberg to be the elder chair or one of the elders at Willow Creek Community Church.

God appointed him to serve as pastor of a church in the Bay Area instead.  That’s where his authority lies.

He may have some moral or spiritual authority in the wider Christian community, but he has zero authority where he is not welcome.

And his ideas and counsel are not wanted by Willow’s elders.

The most breathtaking part of this entire story are the demands that The Group made to the elders at Willow.  This is from the WC website:

“The two couples made specific demands outlining how they wanted the investigation to unfold and the control that they wanted to have—demands that our Elders deemed unreasonable and unbiblical. These demands included the following:

  • These couples (non–Willow members) would approve the choice of the investigator.
  • The investigation would run the full course of Bill’s adulthood (from 18 years old and ongoing).
  • These couples would be able to choose the witnesses who were interviewed, and all people interviewed would have full indemnification.
  • The investigation reports would all be public regardless of the outcome.
  • These couples would insist that there be a public admission of anything that they (not the investigator or the Elders) deemed inappropriate.”

When my wife reviewed the story the other night, she asked me this question: “Who do the Ortbergs think they are?”

Hybels has been thoroughly investigated twice.  He has been exonerated both times.  Why would Willow’s elders then turn over an investigation to people who seem to want Hybels’ scalp?

The elders of Willow have spoken unanimously.  And they have shared their conclusion as to what’s really going on:

“This small group of former staff members has articulated outright to several people that they believe Bill does not deserve to finish his ministry tenure at Willow well, despite the thorough and conscientious investigative process that has cleared his name. It has become clear to us that they have decided to spread this sentiment through rumors and now through the media. They aggressively shopped the story to multiple media outlets. These actions fail to live up to biblical standards, and they have caused much pain for many people. We have deep sadness over the broken relationships with people we have respected and people we love. We are grieved for Bill and his family. After 42 years of faithfully pastoring you and me, our congregation, and after his family giving sacrificially, this has been painful beyond words for them.”

I’m sure there are people who do not like or agree with their verdict, but it’s time to accept it and for everyone to go home and focus on their own ministries.

From my vantage point … and I could be reading matters wrong … it looks like The Group … which includes Ortberg … is doing everything they can to get Hybels fired.

Let Bill Hybels serve out his last six months in peace.

If Hybels has been lying, the Lord will deal with him … either in this life, or the next life.

If the elders engaged in a cover-up, let God deal with them as well.

God is the Ultimate Judge.  He will right any wrongs.

In fact, God only uses imperfect people, including pastors, elders, staff members, and investigators.

And the longer this controversy goes on, the wider and deeper the breach will become in the body of Christ.

As Paul asked the Corinthians:

Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be cheated?  Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.  I Corinthians 6:7-8

For the sake of the gospel and the advancement of Christ’s church … please, let it go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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